By Karthik Manickavachagam, MEDS '22
When Mother Theresa visited the United States, she gave a speech in which she emphasized the importance of love and human connection. She reflected that in developing countries there was indeed poverty – a poverty of money – but that in developed countries there was a greater poverty – a poverty of love. She explained that when she visited nursing homes in developed nations, she found the residents wanting for love and human connection. As doctors-in-training and future physicians, we have the power to address this issue within the realm of healthcare. In addition to addressing the physiologic ailments of patients, it is important that we foster a human connection based on love and compassion, because after all, patients are not machines that we fix but rather, humans that we heal.
One powerful tool which we can use while striving to heal patients is the human smile. I learned this poignant lesson from a dying cancer patient as a second-year nursing student. I was nervous and unsure of how to interact with a dying patient. However, the patient put me at ease with her smile and small talk. Even now, years after this encounter, I remember how a simple smile made the interaction more comfortable and meaningful.
Another way to enhance the therapeutic relationship is to listen with undivided attention and to be ‘fully present’ during interactions with patients. This can be challenging with the multitude of demands placed on healthcare providers, not to mention the numerous smart phones and pagers constantly going off. However, a physician who is not ‘present’, hinders the therapeutic relationship and leaves patients feeling unimportant and uncared for. One thing I have noticed good physicians do is excuse themselves to attend to an important phone call and then return to the patient with their undivided attention. This not only improves the patient experience but, as a bonus, reduces medical errors.
Often the nature of our conversations with patients and their family members involves difficult topics such as choosing palliative care and forgoing futile aggressive treatments. Fittingly, during these conversations, many emotions arise. While it is important that we do not become over attached to patients, we still have a duty to support them and be part of a genuine conversation. Holding their hand and sitting in silence (despite the urge to fill it up) are powerful techniques to support patients and build connection.
To conclude, human connection is integral to establishing a therapeutic relationship and providing good medical care to patients. Use of the above techniques and keeping an open mind to learn from others can help us achieve this important goal.
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